The Cree Nations

The Cree form an aboriginal population ranging from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean in North America. Their ancestral language was once the most common across North America; the loss of culture and language means that few Cree can now speak this language. English and French have become more common.

The Cree have over 200,000 members, making them the largest First Nations group in Canada. Unlike other tribes, the Cree embraced inter-tribal marriages. For example, the Canadian Métis have a mixed Cree-French heritage.

The Cree nation acquired firearms and traded first with the Europeans, causing their population to rapidly expand in the 17th and 18th centuries. These numbers were somewhat reduced because of smallpox epidemics in the 1784 and 1838, as well as ongoing war between the Cree, Dakota, and Blackfeet Indians.

Today, the Cree are divided into two main groups – the Woodland Cree, who relied on hunting, and the Plains Cree, who hunted bison.

The Woodland Cree
Woodland Cree preferred to hunt big game like Caribou and moose. However, large animals were scarce, so they relied heavily on hunting hare. Famine would occasionally lead to cannibalism, related through tribal stories and by Europeans. In addition to game, the woodland Cree also hunted fowl.

The Woodland Cree were organized into small bands of related families. During warfare, many bands would work together as allies. Cree culture had great respect for shamans and conjurers, who would protect the band from witchcraft, while protecting the spirits of game animals killed for food.

Plains Cree
The Plains Cree became more militant after they acquired firearms and horses from the Europeans. They warred against and raided many other Plains tribes. Unlike the woodland Creek, the Plains Cree were an organized military force. Although they were split into 12 different bands, each having its own chief, when it came to war and the bison hunt, the Plains Cree worked together for the good of all. Both the Plains and Woodland Cree were allies with the Assiniboine nation.

Religious ceremonies joined the people together as a group, while assuring the success of the bison hunt and war parties.

Lubicon Cree
This Cree nation from northern Alberta, Canada has fought with the federal government for decades regarding land claims. Their culture and way of life has been threatened by oil and gas development in northern Alberta. The international organization Amnesty International has bagged the Canadian government to respect the land claims of the Lubicon Cree, but to no avail.

Nisichawayasihk Cree
This band of Cree, commonly called NCN, live near Nelson House, Manitoba. The people who live here are descendents of the indigenous persons who moved to Northern and Central Canada between 10000 and 35,000 years ago.

In the late 19th century, the Canadian government relocated members of the NCN to an area which no European settlers were interested in. However, hydroelectric developments in the 1960s and 1970s caused traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping territories to be flooded. The NCN peoples were forcibly relocated to their present location near Nelson House.

The Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation number approximately 2000 people. Unlike the rest of Canada, many members of the NCN live in poverty. Most residents have no fresh water and sewage services, so water and liquid waste must be hauled by trucks.

Today, the NCN Cree continue to fight for native rights in Canada.

Poundmaker (1842-1886), a chief of the Plains Cree First Nation, Image courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-001875, and Wikipedia.